Arts editor and Head of News at NSR Julia McGee-Russell interviews director Sam Burrell about his upcoming production of Rent with Newcastle University Theatre Society (NUTS).
Julia: Is this your first time directing?
Sam: I directed Two by Jim Cartwright back in November 2017, that was the first ever play that I’d directed for NUTS (Newcastle University Theatre Society). Later on, I wrote my own play for Dramafest and directed that as well. This is the third show I’m directing myself, but I’ve also choreographed two shows before.
J: So you’re definitely experienced! Does your degree link to theatre as well?
S: Absolutely not. I study medicinal chemistry, so the complete opposite of the spectrum. But my dissertation is linked to this play because they’re similar topics. One of the main themes in Rent is HIV and AIDS, and my dissertation is currently on discovering drugs to inhibit the spread of HIV.
J: Speaking of the plot, would you like to give us a quick summary of it for people who have never seen Rent before?
S: Rent was written by Jonathan Larsson and was set at the end of the 90s in New York. It’s a pop-rock musical surrounding these eight artists and bohemians and musicians and their struggle with HIV and poverty, and them trying to overcome these battles – battles between friends and with relationships and sexuality.
J: Would you say this is very different from other shows you’ve done?
S: Very much so. The whole show is completely set to music, so it’s just over two hours of pop-rock. Whereas the other musicals I’ve done have just been three-minute songs and then dialogue. Even the bits of script that are few and far between still have a score underneath them, so it’s never completely silent. It’s very very challenging. We have a band for that, there’s only five of them. I’ve heard them rehearsing and they’re sounding incredible. I’ve never been somebody who can play music myself, so hearing them – I’m just amazed at what they can do.
J: You’ve mentioned that the music has been a challenge, have there been any other challenges that have come up during this rehearsal process?
S: Just because my cast is so big – around 26 people in the entire ensemble – just trying to get a rehearsal where everyone can be there has been the main issue.
J: What have been your highlights so far in terms of rehearsals?
S: The first week of rehearsal was probably my favourite. There’s a number in the show called 'La Vie Boheme', and it’s twelve minutes long, and it’s everybody dancing on the tables and singing and cheering. I thought we’d start with that number because it’s one of the biggest in the show, and everybody went into it with no embarrassment, and gave it everything. I left those rehearsals thinking ‘that was amazing, I can’t wait for the rest.’ Everyone else got that vibe of ‘this is going to be good’ and they’ve really kept that going throughout the whole rehearsal process.
J: That must’ve started off the process really well. So, a common criticism of the play itself is that although there are a lot of LGBT characters, the main character is still a straight white man. Have you got any thoughts on that in terms of LGBT representation?
S: I can see why that would be considered a major criticism, however I don’t really see that character as the main character. There are eight leads, and I don’t see any of them as more important than the rest. There are so many different people and genders, and everything is represented within these eight characters. Yes, there is a straight white man there, but that doesn’t change the fact that other people are being represented. It may be a criticism, but I don’t see it as a bad thing.
J: In terms of directing, what advice do you have for other directors?
S: Have fun with it. The first time I directed a show, I was too stressed. I had some fun in rehearsals but I forgot to have fun the entire time, I let the whole organisational aspect of it get too heavy. Be prepared to compromise is another major thing, because everyone who has an idea has their perfect idea, but in NUTS the idea that you have is never going to be what you get just because of budgeting and space issues. You have to be prepared to compromise. You just have to accept that that is going to be part of the process, and not be bitter about it and let it ruin the rest of the show for you.
The Newcastle University Theatre Society production of Rent is being show at Northern Stage, March 1st at 7.45pm, and March 2nd at 1.30pm and 7.45pm.